Not A New Year’s Resolution: But Resolving to Stay Slow & Steady

A Big Pile of Archival Research

A quick glance at the Oxford English Dictionary gives us a glimpse at the language used when so many of us pledge a New Year’s Resolution, especially when we pledge to research and write so much. They write:


 The capacity to make decisions; free will; the fact of having decided to do something; deliberateness, intentionality. Later also: a decision; a settled intention, a resolution, a purpose; (occas.) a plan of action. Obs.

These are all positive words and intentions. We all, I think, make a ‘plan of action’, and have ‘a settled intention’ when we write down our lists of things to do. It’s a start, and the list looks lovely in our brand new Moleskine Notebooks. The early-career researcher  nods sagely as they sip a flat-white in a coffee bar that plays smooth jazz. They have ‘a purpose’. They feel smug and consider having a piece of cake.

The trouble is this is where the rot sets in, and, to me, researchers are sometimes their own worst enemy on the road to frustration. The lists are just too big. How often is this bigness encouraged by the academic echo chamber of Twitter?

I looked at my Moleskine and here is my list for January. This list was clearly written under the influence of too much coffee and smooth jazz :

  • Write conference paper
  • Plan lecture
  • Write blog (not this one)
  • Research gender
  • Write book chapter
  • Research that biography
  • Source adult-education vacancies
  • Update CV

That is about 20,000 words, possibly more if I am telling Twitter about it. Over a generous 3 day research week  it’s 5,000 words a week,  or, 1,666 (and a bit) words over a day. If I put by a generous five hours a day to writing that’s 333.2 words an hour, or, about 5.55 words a minute. I haven’t even done any thinking, reading or redrafting. This is a very ample research week. Many only get one research day a week. Put another way, I have written a to-do list that is the equivalent of writing a master’s dissertation in one month.

Is it any surprise early-career researchers become disheartened? No wonder they have no time for themselves and others. Plus, at some point, they have to earn a crust. Early-career researchers often ‘make’ themselves too busy with their lists.

So, in the end, I am resolving to be slow and steady. To produce, but on my own terms. Learn when to say no, and, above all, ignore academic bigness on social media.

When I write my future lists I will ask: Is it doable? Will it be of good quality? Will I, in all honesty, have time to do it? Is it a contribution to the academy? Can I conference it?  If I publish, how many revisions are likely?

I know my big list looks great on the new page of my new notebook, but maybe I also need a new eraser to go with it.






One Year Since that You Have a PhD Email: What I Know Now


A Short Period of Rejoicing


It was a year ago that I was sitting looking out of the window, possibly worrying, and an email popped into my inbox from the university research office entitled, “PhD Examination Outcome”. Obviously, before I opened it, I felt sick, nervous and apprehensive. Yet, I had passed. It was over. No more teeth-grinding stress in the final revision stage. In spite of often being viewed as one of the most positive academics on Twitter I can’t describe how awful that revisions stage was for me. Nevertheless, I was  now a Doctor of Philosophy. I could call the bank – and more importantly the council tax office – and tell them to call me doctor when calling to have a go.

By the way, I don’t subscribe to this I have passed my viva therefore I’m a doctor thing. You’re one when the university says you are, preferably on graduation day. Anyway, I digress. One year on what has post-doc life been like?


Indeed, relief that it was over, but also regret. I was no longer linked with a university and that’s a big break. Cast out into the wilderness of job hunting can be difficult. After a short period of rejoicing, however, the first thing I wanted to do was get back at it with new research. I’m often reminded that a professor once said their PhD was now a doorstop and the best way to progress was with new material.

Some success

Having said that, within a few months I had mined my thesis for article material and submitted three pieces. One of which was accepted, one accepted with revisions and one rejected. I was pleased. Progress was being made.

The post-doc position rejections

I then had my first period of coming unstuck. I started applying for post-doc  positions. Three applications and three rejections. I had to dig deep to stay positive. I could not help thinking, “I’m as good as, if not better, than the person who got it”. “What is going on?” (Internal applications?) The first thing to try and come to terms with was that rejection is common in academia and I should learn to accept it with good grace. Devoney Looser has written an excellent blog on dealing with rejection and the only thing to add is to take notice of this, try and understand rejection and deal with it in pro-active way.

Be pro-active in the face of negativity

I was then given the opportunity to lead an adult-education course that was based around my PhD. It was only three sessions, but it was a toe hold, a beginning. It was not without challenges, but who wants to stay in a  comfort zone? Significantly it opened up more opportunities and I will be re-running the course at another university soon. In short, I sold myself, I became brand brass band. I sold this brand and made a few sales.

I also reflected on the post-doc vacancies position and considered what the role of a post-doc was? It was to produce publications and make impact. Having a paid position was a benefit, but, surely, I asked myself, it is a stage on the journey to a full-time post, not the destination. To this end I decided to crowdfund my own research. Surely, I thought, it is better to be moving forwards towards publication, and making a contribution to the scholarship, rather than dealing with the rejection of post-doc applications. I did feel a bit odd asking for what was private sponsorship. Like Haydn, perhaps? Nevertheless I also reasoned that there had to be an alternative to the traditional post-doc route.

I also volunteered for a research project at the RNCM. I start later this month (April). Apart from the career-development and CV enhancement opportunities that are well known, it is also a case of contributing and giving back to the community that educated me. On my graduation day I was struck by how much that ethos was valued. In addition it will help me cope with the strains of my current job. The key point, however, is that it is a positive and worthwhile thing to do.

Sustaining yourself

This is tough. Keeping sane in a job I have grown out of and yet have to stay in to pay the bills is difficult. But I have to live, and I am not young enough to go running around the country on part-time contracts. I am prone to periods of  extreme “grumpy old man syndrome”, I push through it. It has to be said: with a PhD I have, in effect, made myself unemployable in jobs  in certain pay grades.

The only option is to keep moving forwards to what I want. I exercise, I plan new research, I stay off twitter when it’s ‘braggy’, or particularly ‘you were fantastic, darling.’  I network and I am always selling my brand. (There is a lot to be said for that notion, if a little business buzzword bingo.)

The year in review

Some success,  some failure, some forward planning, and some innovation. The first post-doc year is a start. Getting a PhD  is like learning to drive. You only really learn when you pass your test.



Imposter Syndrome: Dealing With Negativity

In the early days of your PhD you set off for campus, with your brand new Moleskine Diary, and a set of new pencils, itching to get into the archives and start reading. All the people in the department are welcoming, friendly and supportive. Yet, something is not quite right? What is that horrendous feeling of woe, the feeling that you don’t belong? The feeling that you are not good enough, and you will be found out.

That would be Imposter Syndrome. At best it is a minor feeling that will pass. At worst it can lead to depression, anxiety and even thoughts of giving up your research. Nevertheless, Dr Stephen Brookfield, of the University of St Thomas, has said that, ‘  I would not want to work with anyone who didn’t have a healthy touch of impostorship, because it keeps you humble and focuses you on improving your practice. Without this syndrome, lies a megalomaniacal belief in your own infallibility!’  This article has some good points, but having been a victim of this on more than one occasion, here’s a few pointers of how I deal with it:

1) Don’t Give In to It

It is healthy to be aware that your work needs improvement. Letting Imposter Syndrome get the better of you, however, can lead to procrastination, avoidance tactics and falling behind. To avoid this affirm your authority in the subject.

Firstly, avoid the negativity on Twitter. It can be full of it. ‘Oh woe is me, PhD life is so hard.’ Shut your eyes to this and focus. If you are overwhelmed by people in your department, remember this, they were in exactly the same situation as yourself, often not that long ago, mixing part-time hourly paid teaching with research and often working a number of non-academic jobs as well.  Try to ignore the jargon. REF this, collaboration that, what are these strange acronyms? You will be quoting them soon enough. In short, it is all to easy to let social media, and the feeling that people are more succesful become overwhelming. This is nonsense. Don’t give into it.

2) Deal with That Comfort Zone

The first stage is to get out of the department. Get into the world. My own  preference was to arrange talks to community groups outside academia. Local History Societies were a good starting place. The benefits of getting your research ‘out there’ are many. Nevertheless, in the context of dealing with Imposter Syndrome, it makes you work. Firstly, you have to approach the people, explaining who you are, and why you are interesting. Secondly, you have to stand in front of strangers and explain your research. This is all uncomfortable. That’s the point. When it starts to become comfortable move on. Always be pushing forwards.  Having to explain, and defend, your research puts you in a position of authority, you are starting to become succesful as an academic.

Secondly, more feeling uncomfortable. Some time ago someone said to me, ‘oh! Your’e the brass band man.’ That was a compliment, of course, nevertheless, the point is I like to be thought of as an all-round historian. Recently I was a teaching assistant on a 1970s modern history module. The point, of course, was that I was forced to read,and lecture on, an area of history I was unfamiliar with. It was amazing how the areas of class, culture and gender transferred from the Victorian era to the modern. I was, of course, nervous and uncomfortable, but that was the point. It helped me develop authority as a historian, not just the ‘brass band man.’ This makes Imposter Syndrome vanish. It’s a cliché, but push those comfort zones.

3) Collaboration is the Key

Twitter is a great networking tool, if you stay away from pictures of cats. Through this you can get invited to conferences and also be invited to give talks. This networking is important. Speak to colleagues, are there any areas you can collaborate on? Do you have a similar research area? What about arranging a conference? This is because conference arranging introduces you to a range of administration skills that are always needed. Being able to arrange and organise things with internal and external agencies is vital. You have to discuss, agree, negotiate and compromise. All this, of course, banishes Imposter Syndrome, if nothing else you will be too busy to worry.  The point is that you are reinforcing your authority as a reliable and organised person, as well as working with colleagues. This is especially important for part-time PhD people.

4) Communication is Vital

This is important for part-time researchers. Let people know you are alive. Firstly, tell your supervisors what you are doing  and what your plans are regularly. Email is fine, perhaps a summary once a month. Not only is this polite, but you can express any problems and they can be dealt with quickly.  The bonus, of course, for part-time people, is that your university does not forget about you. Ensure that you go to events, seminars and discussions. Be known. The point is that people who may intimidate you with their knowledge, success, or whatever, are just people. Be sociable, you would be surprised how approachable people are. In short, take a deep breath and talk to people. Yet again, you will be explaining  your research to peers. This strengthens your authority, and may result in opportunities.

4) Final thoughts

If you network, collaborate, communicate,  organise and be reliable then  Imposter Syndrome should get more manageable.  It never goes away, but by being an active researcher, in no time at all you will be discussing REF stats and impact strategy.